Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Debating the Black Family. (Society)

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Debating the Black Family. (Society)

Article excerpt

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The charge was to explore, in the words of Salmagundi (Winter-Spring 2002) editor Robert Boyers, "the situation of Afro-America," or, in Harvard University sociologist Orlando Patrerson's more specific ones, "the gender, family, and sexual problems of African Americans," at the dawn of the 21st century.

The ultimate issue was the plight of black children, 60 percent of whom grow up in fatherless households. Patterson, whose Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (1999) was assigned reading for the 18 panelists gathered by the journal, acknowledged that he had changed his outlook since a similar roundtable almost a decade earlier. Then he had stressed unemployment and the absence of available jobs as the reason marriage was so unpopular among blacks; but now he suggested the reverse: "Men do not have jobs because they're not married."

At the root of the contemporary black reluctance to marry or cohabit in a stable union, said Patterson, is "the most profound tragic experience in Afro-American history, namely slavery and its aftermath." Slaves did not even own their children, and fathers were especially irrelevant. Jim Crow and "the nightmare of lynching" carried on the emasculation, he said. The whole experience "was devastating culturally and psychologically." This past, he said, "gave us the [gender] attitudes which largely account for our present problems."

Kendall Thomas, a law professor at Columbia University, protested that "black people of all classes" in America today "continue to be menaced, threatened, subjected to violence of all sorts"--victims of "the ideology and the institutions of white supremacy." He objected to the idea of "normative masculinity and normative heterosexuality" as a solution to "the perceived gender crisis in the black community." Patterson was also faulted for slighting gay and other unions.

But Jacqueline Rivers, executive director of the Boston-based National Ten Point Leadership Foundation, which seeks to combat violence among inner-city youths, pointed out that homosexual unions are not the issue. "Clearly, what we have in the inner city are mostly short-term, heterosexual unions without any affiliated commitment to raising the product of those unions. …

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